Writers call it gate-keeping. It's the act of letting readers in to one's personal life, while managing to keep them an arm's length away - just a bit further than absolute honesty would allow.
It makes sense. Baring one's soul can be messy and it's definitely scary, but readers respond, usually with great appreciation, admiration and empathy. And savvy readers feel shortchanged when an author wimps out.
Rebecca Walker had a unique opportunity with her new memoir, "Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood After a Lifetime of Ambivalence" (Riverhead Books, $24.95). She's a wonderfully insightful writer who grew up in an unconventional household. Her mother is best-selling black author and feminist Alice Walker, her father, a white Jewish lawyer. The couple split when Rebecca Walker was in third grade. We learned about her difficult growing-up years in her 2002 memoir, "Black, White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self."
In "Baby Love," Walker uses her decision to get pregnant at 30-something to continue her story. She offers an unflinching look at her doubts, her anxieties, even her pride in knowing she's joined a special club as her pregnancy begins to show. And she offers a realistic account of labor and delivery.
She also tells us about her increasingly strained relationship with her mother, who apparently doesn't approve of the pregnancy - or maybe she doesn't approve of her daughter's partner, Glen. It's unclear. Mom eventually tells her daughter - in an e-mail - "Walk free, with my blessing." She later takes her out of her will, replacing her with a cousin, from whom her only daughter gets the news.
What happened? Is her mother completely unreasonable? What was done to try to repair the relationship? Was it truly heart-wrenching to go through pregnancy and childbirth for the first time without one's mother?
Walker also never adequately explains her decision to leave a woman, whom she's dated for years, and move in with a man and have his baby. She talks about her ambivalence, her conflicting feelings, over the years about how to manage her life as both a woman and a mother. But being bisexual must have muddied the waters further. Did her need to have a baby eclipse her desire to love a woman? Did Glen simply come along at the right time? She speaks fleetingly about her fantasy to have a child with her former girlfriend, but did she consider it a real option?
Walker scratches the surface here and tells a poignant love story of herself and her son, but the unanswered questions overwhelm the beauty and will leave readers wanting more truth, less gate-keeping.